Ten Important Points to Consider

We’re going to talk about magic, not simply about how magic tricks work but rather about a question that is, I think, much more important: “What is the process by which we learn to perform magic effects?” A process hopefully that ends with a magical performance that is both deceptive and entertaining.”

I suppose that there are almost as many views of this process of how to learn magic, as there are magicians. During the last eight years I have thought about it quite a bit. Much of my thinking was stimulated by working with magic students and trying to help them find efficient and effective ways to learn magic. Here are some words and some ideas to keep this discussion organized. Let’s look at the first one.

#1, Easy or Simple
Here’s a question. Is it easy or simple? Of course, we’re told in magic lectures and many magic books that this is all easy. I don’t believe it. I think learning to perform magic is really rather difficult. It is the case, however, that some magic is simple, not easy but simple: simple to understand and, even more important, simple for laymen to understand. I think that a good magic effect is one that when it’s over, a layman can describe it to another layman. If they can’t do that, perhaps the effect was far too complicated.

#2, Selecting Effects
What I’m looking for in a magic effect is, first of all, one that appears magical but, secondly, I want an effect that is within my own performing range, technically. Much of the very bad magic that we see is from performers who overreach, trying to do technical material that is far beyond what they actually have learned.

#3, Solitude
A strange word, “solitude,” for this question of how to learn magic. I remember when I was a very small child, I would clear my mother and father’s dresser of all the things on it and I would practice my cups and balls in front of the big mirror. I think that’s often the way magic is learned. It is learned in solitude. It’s learned in periods when we allow our imagination to simply inspire us. I think there are a couple of tools here. One of them is a notebook. When I get ideas, I write them down and later look through that notebook but, secondly, I think what we need is a mirror. I simply cannot understand how Close-Up Magic can be learned at all without a mirror.

#4, Practice
The fourth thing is practice. We’ve found an effect, hopefully from a book and not from a working performer’s act, now we want to begin the process of learning it. The first step is practice. I think for practice to be effective it should be regular; that is to say, I think a person is far better off practicing 10 minutes a day than an hour once a week; a half hour a day would even be better. That leads us to the second thing about practice, and that is that practice should be structured. You should be clear what it is you want to practice before you do it. Practice is work! It’s repetition. It’s learning the moves. With complicated card tricks, one of the great ways to learn moves is to read the entire body of instructions onto an audio tape, because then you can close the book, turn the tape back on, and learn from the tape in an easier fashion. Practice is not always fun. It’s work, learning the moves, learning the sequences. Above all, it’s repetition with awareness, not rehearsal.

#5, Rehearsal
Rehearsal should also be regular and structured. In rehearsal what I’m trying to do, among other things, is find the frame that I’m going to put around this magical effect. Rehearsal means imagining that there is an audience with you and speaking out loud to these imaginary people. It’s really quite schizophrenic. In rehearsal, you start at the beginning and you go to the end. If you mess up, well, you go to the end, because for rehearsal to be effective, it has to have that pressure of performing for imaginary people. A good piece of advice: Don’t imagine that these imaginary people are always polite and kind. Sometimes you should imagine that they are frisky and that they’re grabbing or asking embarrassing questions and you can then rehearse how you might deal with them. Surprisingly, one day you will have to respond to such things. Now, after we have practiced and rehearsed, we are then ready for the next step – the performance.

#6, Performance
I have a rule of thumb here that I want to mention. When I think that I am ready to perform a magic trick, I don’t. I wait 30 more days. Give it 30 more days of practice and rehearsal, they really make a big difference. So, we’ve done all this and now we come to performance time, but performance is not the end. Performance is just a stage along the way, because this phase of performance is not going to be as good as the performances you make after completing step #10.

#7, Audio Taping
Since most Close-Up Magic is done with speaking, you should tape your performance and to listen to it sentence by sentence. Try to discover how many times you are putting yourself down, you are putting the effect down, you’re just doing gibberish talk or idle chatter. This is what we call “patter” in magical lingo. I listen to my performance sentence by sentence, try to tighten it, to take away excess verbiage, to keep the directions tight and simple and not to be endlessly repeating myself. Once we’ve audiotaped our show and listened to it, then the next step is

#8, Videotaping
When I videotape a performance I can watch it action by action. When you think about it, twentieth-century magicians have an opportunity that no magicians have ever had before; none of the great magicians of history, not Houdini, not any of them! The ability to get a video camera and to tape your performance and watch all of the little ticks and the little hideous things that you do is invaluable. It isn’t easy to view these things, because it requires great honesty, to look at ourselves and to see what’s there.

#9, Honesty
The great German Protestant theologian, Rudolph Bultmann, said, “Scholars must approach the bible with ruthless honesty.” This phrase has remained in my mind since the ’60s when I first read it. In magic, and in the arts even more so, we must approach our work with ruthless honesty, and the video camera and other devices that provide feedback allow us to do just that. Of course, sometimes we’re not honest; that’s the sad fact of it, but it’s a goal to strive for.

#10, Other Eyes
Have another pair of eyes look at your work, perhaps a magician friend, perhaps a relative, perhaps a nonmagician friend, perhaps a professional director. What you hear from them is really up to you, but my point is that once we’ve worked on our act, once we’ve practiced it and rehearsed it and performed it, having another pair of eyes look at it can be an eye-opening experience. Look, what we’re trying to learn is a performance art. Magic happens between people. It is a process to learn this. I think it is also a path. The important thing is going to the end of the path. And that’s what we often don’t see when we look at contemporary magic. Too often magicians have started to practice, they’ve started to rehearse, and then they put it aside to work on a new trick. Before they get that one finished, they find yet another one to work on. The end result is that we never go to the end of the path. That, I think, is where our attention needs to be – on going to the end of the path – where a magical performance that is deceptive and entertaining is awaiting us.

Seems like a lot of work, doesn’t it? It is. As I said at Step 1, “This isn’t easy but it can be simple” and therefore effective.

Originally published in The Everything Magic Book.

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